Friday, April 12, 2024

Emotional storytelling: Maren Morris talks making of ‘Humble Quest’

Country maven stops over at Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Friday

Maren Morris is headlining her first tour, which stops over at Live Oak Bank Pavilion Friday. (Photo by Harper Smith)

This summer finds Maren Morris joining the ranks of country music’s major players, as she headlines outdoor amphitheaters and other large venues for the first time in her career.

Despite taking this step up, Morris says in some ways she’s scaled back on the visual bells and whistles in her show. This might come as a surprise given that for many artists, the larger the venue, the bigger the spectacle.

“On my last tour, even though I was in smaller venues, I feel like the production was more over-the-top compared to this summer tour,” Morris said. “On my last tour, we had a video wall and an elevator and steps with lights all over them and fog and bubbles. So, yeah, in some ways, I feel like this one is really stripping it back. It’s definitely bigger, but it’s not as splashy as the last tour production because I didn’t feel like it would fit this album of songs.”

Morris’ reasons for avoiding some of the visual sizzle make sense when listening to her new album, “Humble Quest.” The LP is personal and sounds more organic than her previous albums.

“Just picking up real instruments and not having a ton of fluff over it and just letting the songs and the lyrics speak for themselves was really key here on this one,” she said.

Emotional storytelling is a big part of the appeal of “Humble Quest.” The slightly twangy, mid-tempo “I Can’t Love You Anymore” (one of several co-writes on the album with husband and fellow country star Ryan Hurd) is a tale of lasting love that, ironically enough, was written after the couple had an argument.

On the soulful ballad “Background Music,” Morris muses about the unpredictable careers she and Hurd share, knowing their love will still stand when their time in the spotlight fades.

On the delicate “Hummingbird,” she sings the praises of motherhood, while the frisky pop-ish tune, “Circles Around This Town,” has her recounting her long path to success (more on that later) and how she remains driven to make meaningful music.

She shows her lighter side on “Tall Guys,” a sweet and sprightly tune about the appeal of guys who possess considerable verticality in their height.

“Humble Quest” was born out of a period that included some major life events for Morris and Hurd. In 2019, she was rocked by the death of Busbee, a highly successful American songwriter who produced Morris’ first two albums. He also had become the couple’s good friend. 

In March 2020, at the onset of Covid-19 — as hospitals began filling with infected patients — Morris gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son named Hayes. Even amid the joy of starting a new family, Morris said she suffered from a bout of postpartum depression that lasted six months. 

Then, there was the pandemic itself. Morris couldn’t tour, so the future of what a music career might look like came into question. Morris admitted losing a chunk of her purpose in life, but one thing she could hang onto was writing songs and making records.

At one point, Morris said she was driving around Nashville and the words “humble quest” popped into her head. Though struck by the phrase, she wasn’t sure what it meant.

“I think it was just such a cool two words I hadn’t really heard together before and it was something to chew on,” Morris said. “But I think it revealed itself over time as these songs became written, and the time period they were written in felt like a very humbling time, not just for me — with becoming a mother and the pandemic and what not — but also it felt like a humbling time period for the world.”

Morris said to name it “quest” and not just “humble” was like accepting her fate — a journey she said will live in perpetuity.

“That was particularly apropos with ‘Circles Around This Town,'” she said. The single already cracked the top 10 on Billboard’s country songs chart.

“The first song on the record is that I’m always going to be chasing this down,” Morris explained. “It’s this never-ending circle. There’s no linear start and finish. Your life is just memories upon memories and learning from mistakes and growing and getting humbled along the way.”

Far from being an overnight success, Morris spent more than 10 years touring her home state of Texas, self-releasing three albums and trying out and getting rejected for virtually every television talent show — “The Voice,” “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent” and “Nashville Star.” Yet, she never let go of following her dream of a career in country music.

“I think you just have to have this dose of self-delusion to keep going,” Morris said. “I think that’s what kept me going was not having a backup plan. There was no other employment option, so I really, even in the disappointing moments, I think there’s just a dash of crazy that you have to have to stay in the ring.”

Her fortune finally began to turn when Morris moved to Nashville to network. She had tracks recorded by the likes of Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson and self-released a self-titled EP in 2015 that amassed 2.5 million streams in just one month. Thereafter, the record labels showed interest.

Morris signed with Columbia Nashville, re-released an EP, and the single “My Church” landed on the top five on “Billboard” magazine’s country songs chart.

Morris’ full-length major label debut, “Hero,” followed in 2016 and earned widespread acclaim. Three more singles, “Mercedes,” “Rich” and “I Could Use a Love Song,” also topped the country airplay charts.

In 2018, Morris was chosen to duet with electronic superstar Zedd on “In The Middle.” It became a multi-platinum crossover smash and introduced Morris to a wider audience.

When her second album, “Girl,” arrived in 2019, it also topped the country album chart and brought Morris two more No. 1 singles with its title song and “The Bones.”

Later in the year, Morris joined forces with Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby in the Highwomen to release their first self-titled album that September.

She has plenty to choose from while performing her first full-fledged amphitheater tour in support of “Humble Quest.”

“It’s the longest show that I’ve done thus far, so we’re trying to cram as much in there as we can,” Morris said. “We’re obviously playing a lot of the new record. but yeah, it’s like weaving in and out (with) old familiar songs that are old favorites and my favorites, too. I feel like it’s a pretty well-rounded show.”

“Humble Quest” will stop at Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Friday, June 17 (tickets start at $39).

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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